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Why booking trains online is a pain, and how the Internet is fixing it

I love travelling by rail. Last month work took me from Vienna, where I’d been for Eurovision, to Milan, for EXPO — so of course, I took the train. Why fly when you can watch the Alps trundle by and break your journey with gelato in Venice? In my view, rail is by far the most civilized way to travel for business — or pleasure.

Forget out-of-town airports, security queues, your mini shampoos splurging over your laptop in your hand baggage, cramped legroom and recycled air — and say hello to the dining car, Internet connection and a view from the office like this. But when it comes to booking, trains are stuck in the sidings compared to air travel (have you used the easyJet app? so handy). It doesn’t have to be like that.

How did we get here? As the European Union liberalized rail networks, existing systems of cross-border co-operation gradually fell out of use: former national monopolies were now competitors. At the same time, the growth of cheap flights (also liberalized by the EU) and easy online booking made flying more attractive. Gradually, rail operators introduced dynamic ticket pricing like airlines, with prices fluctuating according to timing, demand, and a host of other factors. But they were still strongly national in focus.

Enter the Internet. The first big online disruption, as so often, was information transparency — courtesy of Mark Smith, better known as The Man in Seat 61. His site contains a ton of workarounds, tweaks and tips for booking the cheapest train travel online, with clear steps for navigating the myriad different booking systems for Europe’s rail operators. He describes it as “hand-holding” for travellers: I’d say it’s behind some of my best holidays of the last decade. But you can’t book a ticket on Seat61 — it merely provides advice.

An efficient online booking system “is not going to come from operators themselves, they tend to work in their little silos,” Mr. Smith says. “And a product that is not online doesn’t exist as far as the modern generation is concerned.”

The solution: more Internet. As rail companies gradually share their booking information, allowing agents to sell tickets — just like airlines — third parties are filling the gap. Agencies like Loco2 and Capitaine Train access national operators’ systems. Simultaneously, companies like Amadeus and Travelport which provide back ends for airlines are eager to do the same for rail.

Still, this wasn’t without a fight. Back in 2009, the French Competition Authority chastised SNCF, the country’s former monopoly operator. Its deal with U.S. travel website Expedia to create VoyagesSNCF was found to be unfair competition, at the expense of other travel agencies, which couldn’t sell tickets on the same terms. SNCF were fined, and subsequently, the case went all the way to the European Court of Justice. Since then it has been easier for third parties to sell rail tickets online.

“From a legislative point of view, ten years ago, we couldn’t have existed,” says Kate Andrews, co-founder of Loco2, which can book tickets on British, French, Italian, Spanish and German trains. The service had more than 1 million users last year, and its annual turnover was up 630% between 2013 and 2014, although the company doesn’t yet disclose revenues, and is continuing to grow. “Our mission statement is to make booking a train as easy as booking a flight.”

Across the channel, Captaine Train just completed a EUR 5.5 million funding round, and is selling 5,000 tickets per day. “Why does the customer have to study the system before going from A to B?” says chief operating officer Daniel Beutler, who joined from former German monopoly operator Deutsche Bahn last year. His company is already talking to the European Commission about how to improve things — especially because taxpayers usually subsidize railways. “Most of these companies are public, it should be of interest to governments to get most people using them.”

The offline and online worlds are becoming better and better integrated with each other, and this would be lovely to see in rail travel as well. “We want you to be at the station, open the app, and hop on board, exactly like a plane,” says Mr. Beutler. Anyone who’s ever stood in a lengthy rush hour ticket queue or, as happened to me once, had their TGV tickets stuck in a printer jam coming out the machine, will sympathise.

Some want legislators to go further. At the moment, agencies have to negotiate with rail operators to get access to their systems, which could theoretically be withdrawn as well. Jon Worth — whose blogs about the decline of cross-border rail routes in Europe make sad reading for anyone who loves a good rail journey, especially by night train — wants the EU to oblige rail operators to open up their data.

“If the European Union wanted to be keen on actually improving railways, it could legislate that all data of all European rail companies ought to be available in an open data format,” he says, noting that this was what they obliged airlines to do when they liberalized that market. “Only by actual corporate, legal, solutions can we ensure these systems will actually work.” The International Union of Railways does have a complete timetable, but it’s not accessible to the public.

Of course, more people taking the train would help the environment as well. “If we want people to leave their cars at home and use rail instead we need much better rail service,” says William Todts, transport policy manager of Brussels NGO Transport & Environment. “Making it easy to buy tickets would be a good start… after years of small talk about this, it’s now time for the EU to oblige train companies to deliver.”

There are also reasons to be cheerful. Hafas, which powers the Deutsche Bahn website as well as others, is great for finding out train times. Once you’re on the move, the DB Navigator app is super handy for looking up connections, and they can also send you a Verspätungsalarm if your train is delayed. Capitaine Train is even available on Apple Watch, and rail services tend to be very responsive on Twitter. Or go old school, offline, and enjoy the armchair travel delight of the paper timetable.

What happens next? The European Commission is well aware that booking a flight is much simpler than booking cross-border rail travel in the 28-nation bloc, and hopes that a new recommendation on rail passenger rights, due later this month, could improve the situation for cross-border journeys on every form of transport.

“We could bring positive change to rail reservation systems by streamlining accessibility” to data about services, said Jakub Adamowicz, Commission Spokesman for Transport. The ultimate goal is a “win-win situation” where all travel providers share their planning data. Still, the plans wouldn’t force rail operators to give data about services to third parties like booking agents. “You don’t need to force things, you need to steer them.” In the meantime, Bon Voyage!

European Union

DisCo is dedicated to examining technology and policy at a global scale.  Developments in the European Union play a considerable role in shaping both European and global technology markets.  EU regulations related to copyright, competition, privacy, innovation, and trade all affect the international development of technology and tech markets.